Like so many of my students, I too was “geographically ignorant.”
At least that was the epithet hurled at us by our professor in a freshman course titled “Map of the Modern World.” Everyone who didn’t score above a certain cutoff on a placement test was forced to take this class. The doors were locked promptly. The teaching assistants stood like bouncers. We had to learn the placement of ALL 200+ states in the international system, plus all colonies, territories, associated territories, crown dependencies, etc. At the beginning I didn’t even know where Curacao was. Now I know the position of every Antille, from Bonaire to Aruba and everything in between.
If only our students in public schools had such an intensive class–or a psychotic professor to teach it.
Our pitiful knowledge of geography has been well documented for the last decade. Among the most notable studies was the 2006 Roper study sponsored by the National Geographic Society, a copy of which is linked here. I will spare a detailed analysis, but some of the highlights include that “most young adults between the ages of 18 and 24 demonstrate a limited understanding of the world beyond their country’s borders, and they place insufficient importance on the basic geographic skills that might enhance their knowledge.”
- Only 37% of young Americans can find Iraq on a map—though U.S. troops have been there since 2003.
- 6 in 10 young Americans don’t speak a foreign language fluently.
- 20% of young Americans think Sudan is in Asia. (It’s the largest country in Africa.)
- 48% of young Americans believe the majority population in India is Muslim. (It’s Hindu—by a landslide.)
- Half of young Americans can’t find New York on a map. – from 2006 National Geographic/Roper Survey
What is even more disturbing–even as a three-year old study–is the declining attitude towards geography. 21% of respondents said that knowing where countries were in the world is “not too important.” 38% of respondents said the same about learning another language. As our ability to understand the world grows more and more, we want to know less about it. The results are scary.
One need not look further than my own students to see the results of such thinking. Many of my fifth graders, even as late as December, still thought the Bronx was a country. Many didn’t even know how many states comprised the United States, where our capital is located, or even its name. One kid even alleged that Puerto Rico was a borough of New York City–though considering the demographic, he may be on to something.
Yet they all knew where the Chuck-E-Cheese is located. Most have an encyclopedic knowledge of the shops in Co-Op City, or the amusement possibilities of New Rochelle (dubbed “New Roc City”). They also have exact bearings on where to find the nearest McDonald’s, Burger King and KFC, which would also become their future employers, if they’re not careful.
Our culture has not helped, on both sides of the political spectrum. The extreme right-wing ding-dongs who belittle “book learning”, as education is so often called, as un-American do our children a grave disservice. It is not patriotic to be dumb, no matter what Sarah Palin tells you. Yes, she can see Russia, but Lord knows if she can pick it off a map. Even those conservatives who preach American exceptionalism–and I do, to a certain degree–have to have a working understanding of world geography to form a basis for arguments. You can’t tell a liberal to “go the hell to Russia!” and then point to the Ukraine. I’ve seen this happen with Young Republicans, and it isn’t pretty.
The left is no saint, either. For all their hemming and hawing about the “guilt” of European populations and their parasitic attack on American peoples and environments, they seem to overlook the need to use geography to see why we came here in the first place. Geography played a huge role in the creation of the American landscape. There’s a reason why Arizona and New Mexico weren’t settled by large numbers of European settlers until later in the 19th Century (Here’s a hint: you drink it). If Ms. Cannabis wants to preach about the rape of the continent, she better make sure the class can find it on a map. Otherwise you get renderings of the Atlantic slave trade with ships coming from Detroit into Jamaica, which plays havoc on your civil rights lessons.
Geography is essential to our education. Not just knowing how to read a map, but at least a basic understanding of where countries, states and continents are located on a map. The maps do look nice on the wall, at least before Jose decides to tag them with a Sharpie. Yet the study of our world has many other implications as well:
- It’s multidisciplinary – You have to read maps, and understand what symbols mean. Distances, angles, and rates of speed for travel all need to be calculated. Borders between states or countries can change or shift over time for different reasons. The natural boundaries–mountains, rivers, oceans, etc.–serve ecological, social and economic purposes. Geography extends to every discipline.
- It informs our history — New York City isn’t where it is because of dumb luck. Verrazzano and Hudson both stumbled into the greatest natural harbor on the Atlantic coast. Boston started as a peninsula sheltered by the inland water of Cape Cod. New Orleans sprang up at the terminus of our continent’s most important river system. These were no accidents–geography played a huge role in the development of civilization.
- It informs our perceptions, both true and false — one need look no further than the greatest tool of white supremacy in world history, the 1569 Mercator world map. Yes, a map. Gerardus Mercator’s wildly popular map was created with a huge distortion: the areas farthest away from the Equator were abnormally larger. Europe, North America and Russia are all greatly oversized. Europe is also placed squarely in the middle, as if the world revolved around it. Now, this was probably unintentional–Mercator was European, after all, and used a familiar vantage point–but this map has helped to color our perceptions of people and countries for many years. It’s important for kids to understand this.
- It’s tactile — Geography is one of the few parts of social studies that’s hands-on. The best way to get a kid excited about the world is to put a map or globe in their grubby little mitts. To actually see where the United States is compared to the rest of the world can often be a shocking experience. It also helps the student understand the world doesn’t always revolve around us–even though that’s how it seems.
Students should have access to as much geography as humanly possible. The more kids understand the world, the more curious they get about how the world works–especially its problems. The geography problem, in many ways, is the most urgent problem, as it colors almost every other aspect of social studies. Extending knowledge of world geography will help our students make a positive mark on that same world later in life.
At the very least, students can argue that Puerto Rico is not a borough of New York–but it ought to be. Along with Santo Domingo, Mexico, parts of Ecuador, Israel, Russia, Sicily and southwest Ireland.
The following are some helpful geography websites:
National Geographic for Kids – this is a great site to start. Maps, activities, videos, you name it.
National Geographic Xpeditions – this site is a big help to teachers, as it has lesson plans, interactive media and a fully interactive atlas for students to explore.
KidsGeo-Geography for Kids – this is more of geography skills site than a true study in an atlas nature. It does have a massive amount of information.
Sheppard Software’s Geography Games – truly for the geography fanatic, these games really test your country and state identification skills. Warning: for advance students only.
The Gutting of a Georgetown Tradition: Meddling with “Map of the Modern World”
I had another post in mind today at the Neighborhood, but this news was sent to me by my fellow alumni and its getting my blood up.
In an earlier post on geography, I mentioned a course I took at Georgetown called “Map of the Modern World”, a 1-credit boot camp of world geography and geopolitics. As a student at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service (SFS) I had to take this course as a graduation requirement–since the qualification exam rendered me, in Professor Pirtle’s thundrous voice, “geographically ignorant.” Even though it was a killer for a one-credit course, it was one of the most rewarding courses I took. I know of no other university that has a geography course that even comes close.
Yet, just as it does in the world of education, the “boutique” theories seem to be adopted by administrators as if they were flavors of the month. Such is the case at SFS, where the new dean, James Reardon-Anderson, wants to take over the course personally. Instead of the classic geopolitical survey that each student in the SFS has received (gratefully) for decades, Reardon-Anderson plans to restructure the course as a study of geographic forces and human interactions. The grit-and-grind of the Mercator map is replaced by the soft Venn diagrams of interactions, encounters and relationships.
The scholarship behind this change shouldn’t be new to many people–the work of Jared Diamond, professor at UCLA and author of the popular book Guns, Germs, and Steel. Diamond’s work postulates that the driving forces behind human interaction, as well as human inequality, are the geographic forces that have shaped the development of Earth’s multitude of societies.
Diamond’s work is not at issue. What is at issue is using his theories in a course that was never designed as an anthropological or sociological survey. To really see the difference, here’s the old course description:
Here is the new course description:
As a point of clarification, ths course was always a requirement to graduate and was always graded pass-fail. Yet the differences are obvious. Map of the Modern World was a course designed for future diplomats and international leaders in order to establish a baseline knowledge of the world and its machinations. Period. Since the SFS was designed as a school for training future diplomats, this makes perfect sense.
Reardon-Anderson’s version is cute. It’s too cute. In fact, it’s more like an elective course than a requirement for a school of international relations. Because of the new dean’s penchant for the theory du jour, students at Georgetown will be less than adequately prepared for the roles they aspire to after graduation. No 1-credit course can do justice to Diamond’s theories while preserving the original goal of establishing background knowledge of the political world to students of international affairs.
It’s embarrassing that such a change is even considered, let alone approved. Climate change, human interactions, geographic forces–these are all worthy of study. But not in Map.
This leads to my last point. Map of the Modern World was a rite of passage for students in the SFS program at Georgetown, the oldest school for international studies dating back to 1919. Every year, each spring, freshman entered the large lecture hall in the Reiss Science Building for 45 minutes of backbreaking maps, charts, definitions, treaties, Latin terms such as “uti possidetes” (one of my old classmates please correct my spelling), and the logjam of minutia that make the modern international system.
Damnit, that boot camp did a body good, and no boutique theories or Johnny-come-lately techniques should mess up a good thing.
I’m calling on all my former SFS alumni, alumni from other Georgetown schools, even non-alumni that visit the Neighborhood to take action and stop Reardon-Anderson’s quest to sink the SFS into “geographic ignorance.”
A Facebook group has been made for those who want to join, linked here. Those wishing to express their opinions directly to the school can e-mail Dean Reardon-Anderson at firstname.lastname@example.org. Be sure to CC Dean Lancaster at email@example.com.
Lets save at least one piece of our education that actually worked. Show the administration at SFS that some cows are too damned sacred to make into hamburger.
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Tagged as American History, Commentary, Cultural Literacy, current events, Curriculum, Education, Educational leadership, European history, Geography, geopolitics, Georgetown University, Guns Germs and Steel, History, Jared Diamond, Map of the Modern World, Opinion, School of Foreign Service, SFS, Social studies, Standards, Teachers, U.S. History